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Duncan outlines school reform agenda

Rewarding effective teaching, expanding the learning time, collecting meaningful data, and transforming underperforming high schools are the four key areas the U.S. Department of Education (ED) plans to target in the next year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school stakeholders at the Center for American Progress’s "Resource, Allocation, Reinvestment, and Education Reform" conference May 18.

School administrators and education policy leaders packed into the Grand Hyatt ballroom in Washington, D.C., to hear Duncan’s plan and learn from experts who are ahead of the curve.

"Our flawed public education system fails to prepare all of America’s students to meet the world’s demanding educational benchmarks," said John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center. "Our high school students consistently fare poorly on international comparisons of student achievement, while our domestic achievement gaps remain wide. We have inadequate human capital policies, we fund schools inequitably, and we do not have the rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems that we need to ensure a high-quality education for all of our students."

Podesta said he believes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) can help spur needed changes. Duncan agreed, noting the stimulus provides $100 billion in new money for education–and even though money alone won’t solve every problem, unprecedented resources do, he said, "call for unprecedented reforms."

"This is a time when we need progressive action," said Duncan. "There is a sense of urgency to improve education. And it’s not just in the numbers–the poor international test scores and the number of failing schools. I’ve seen firsthand what failing education can do to a community. We can’t afford to be passive any longer."

Duncan said there are a lot of areas in education that need improvement, but four areas specifically need to be targeted:

1. Data-driven decision making. Duncan explained that without numbers and data, school leaders and ED officials are just "shooting in the dark." Every state and district needs real data, he said, including student tracking from preschool through higher education, teacher tracking from schools of education throughout their career, and better tracking of individual school progress.
2. Raising state and national standards. Duncan said most states are not preparing students adequately for the 21st-century workforce.
3. Rewarding excellence. Duncan believes in offering incentives for the best teachers and principals to serve in problem or underserved schools and districts. He also believes that math and science teachers should be paid more and given rewards for staying in that subject for a long period of time.
4. Reforming low-performing schools. Within the next two years, Duncan would like to see the 2,000 lowest-performing high schools that account for 50 percent of the country’s high school dropouts change. Some of the reforms he’d like to see include prolonging the school day, week, and year; providing more after-school opportunities for students; and replacing ineffective teachers with teachers who have high expectations for their students.

Before states and school systems can undergo these extensive transformations, conference speakers warned, it will take much more than surface fixes to ensure sustainable progress.

"There is a disconnect between the all-too-common industrial-based foundation of our schools and the technological age we are living in today," said Raegen Miller, associate director for education research at the Center.

To help schools take basic steps towards change, Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, suggested that a shift needs to occur in how resources are used to change the underlying system.

"Here’s an example of how most schools work today," said Miles. "There is a girl named Tameka. She is in sixth grade and loves school, but she has low scores in math and a basic reading level. She now has to change schools to go to seventh grade. Two out of her five teachers are new. No one knows Tameka, her scores, or how she learns as a student, because there [are] no data for Tameka and there’s no system in place to track, or even assess, Tameka properly. Now Tameka is failing math and can’t progress to a better reading level. Tameka doesn’t like school anymore."

Miles went on to describe how it’s not a teacher’s fault, either: "You have these new teachers, they have no way to track their students; they have too many students; there’s no way to talk to the resident teachers because your schedules don’t align; and any free time you have is caught up in paperwork. You wish there was a school forum, but there are none. You are stressed and overworked."

Miles’ point was clear: Schools and districts "can’t throw new money on top of old structures that don’t work."

In her newly published paper, "Using Stimulus Funds to Build a Bridge to Better Practice," Miles said she outlines seven steps to help schools redesign their systems–steps that Miles said are based on the scalable practices of high-performing schools:

1. Clarify high-level priorities in the improvement agenda;
2. Map current spending and, if possible, compare spending with similar districts;
3. Quantify large opportunities for reallocation consistent with this vision;
4. Focus leadership discussion on high-return actions;
5. Weigh political concerns in the context of potential impact and complete vision for actions;
6. Conduct line-item reviews by department to determine both cuts and investments; and
7. Ensure that new investments (including new stimulus funds in Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are managed by staff members who can advance the strategic priorities.

Other helpful tips for schools that Miles encouraged were to limit class sizes to no more than 17 students, move from remediation to early prevention, move from autonomy to collaboration, move from teachers as the sole authority to using outside resources and experts, build enhanced student information systems, revamp human resources to help place teachers in the best positions possible for them, establish sturdy teacher evaluation systems, and renegotiate bad bargains.

Two districts that credit their current success to Miles and her leadership are Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools and North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"One of the hardest things to do is going to be to scrap the bad teachers, the bad schools, [and] to figure out what to cut and what to keep," said Miles.

(Editor’s note: For more information on how ARRA funds can help spur education reform, see our Educator Resource Center on "Stimulating Achievement.")


U.S. Department of Education

Center for American Progress

Education Resource Strategies

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